MINISTER of State with responsibility for special education Josepha Madigan has beaten a retreat over “Special Education Centres” after criticism from the autism group As I Am.
“We can come up with a better phrase,” she said in a special Six-One TV interview after her Fine Gael party leader Leo Varadkar told the Dáil that the promotion of such facilities was “not the best language.”
Junior minister Madigan tweeted the new education option for special needs children using the phrase – which immediately came in for criticism, since the children will be segregated from school pupils through education on the premises of ETBs (Educational Training Boards).
Last night she pointed out many children were being educated at home and were segregated anyway. “It was an idea we were exploring,” she said, since schools were not providing enough special classes to meet demand.
But the Tánaiste also criticised the use of the word ‘stopgap’ in the announcement, which Ms Madigan said she made on Twitter because it had already leaked,.
Mr Varadkar said: “No parent wants to be told his or her child is being offered a stopgap solution.”
He added: “I particularly do not like the use of the term ‘autism centre’ because it sounds othering. It sounds like children are going to be bussed away to a special place set away from other children and the rest of society and put in some sort of special centre, and I do not like that either.
“Perhaps the language used last night was not the right language. It certainly has been badly received by parents and by advocates in the sector and I get that.
“What we are aiming for is children with special needs being educated in mainstream classes. Where that cannot be done, we want to have special classes in mainstream schools and 300 of those have been established only in the past year.”
Duncan Smith TD of the Labour Party said there had been leaks on Wednesday night of plans to create emergency special school centres. “The Minister of State hastily confirmed the proposal in a series of response tweets. This is no way to make major public announcements.
Minister Madigan said on Six-One: “I just want to say that I think it was regrettable that this came into the public domain before we had an opportunity to discuss this with stakeholders.”
Earlier today, Human Rights Commissioner Sinéad Gibney, autism campaigners and politicians had denounced a plan for emergency education centres for pupils with special needs who cannot get a school place.
There is a severe shortage of capacity for pupils with autism and other additional needs in some areas, particularly Dublin and Cork, with about 130 children in the capital alone still awaiting a place for September.
Ms Madigan is under pressure on the issue and last night took to Twitter to float a plan for a network for temporary centres to accommodate children.
She said it was at “an early stage of development”.
But there was a furious reaction from campaigners some of whom attended an online meeting with the Minister today.
It was denounced by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commissioner (IHREC), and opposition politicians .
IHREC Chief Commissioner, Sinéad Gibney reacted with “immediate concern”.
“For this kind of announcement to be made suddenly by the Minister of State, seemingly without the participation of disabled people or prior consultation with their representatives is fundamentally at odds with the word and the spirit of the UN Convention,” she said..
Ms Gibney said the State had a record of temporary measures becoming embedded in long term delivery.
“The severe shortage of school places for these students is not new and not only Dublin specific.
“The State cannot just roll back the rights of these children to an inclusive education for the sake of convenience, particularly for children who rely on consistency and routine to anchor their educational needs.”
Meanwhile, Adam Harris, CEO of the autism charity, AsIAm, said the idea was a “non starter”.
He said while the department was insisting that it was at an early stage, “there appears to be confusion about the status of the project”.
Mr Harris said special education centres would be a “breach of children’s rights and something we will not support in any circumstances.”
“We have seen the early stage idea and we don’t think it has any merit.
"There is a huge level of anger among campaigners and parents.”
He said it was “clear that there needs to be some clarity from the department” ,which, he said, had committed to engage with stakeholders , with a further meeting planned for next week.
“Nothing has been decided and there will be further discussions next week.
“What we need to focus on is finding a solution. This should not be about an emergency response, this is something that should be planned for and there needs to be a deep examination of how we find ourselves in this position,” he said.
Ms Madigan tweeted that it was a supplementary measure to ensure that while children await a new special class placement in a mainstream school they can access a more sustained level of support in a setting with peers of their own age.
She said she wanted to stress that "this proposal is not a medium or long-term alternative to a special class placement in a school".
She said children could "access education on an interim basis in a new SEN Centre and be supported to move quickly to a special class placement in a mainstream school".
"We are still working on this proposal and this is in no way a long-term solution".
She said children would have access to qualified teachers and special needs assistants (SNAs) at the new centres.
After today’s meeting, Ms Madigan tweeted that there were “lots of proposals and ideas that come from the department and we want to find solutions that work for children with special educational needs”.
Labour education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin accused the Government of showing “phenomenal disrespect” to people with autism.
“The issue of special school places has been bubbling for over five years. Rather than a fair and inclusive approach to providing education for all children, overnight, we learn of new plans to create emergency special school centres.
“This is simply outrageous and has had the effect of causing huge concern and distress for parents.
“Unfortunately, they already know from past experience that these ‘short-term segregated solutions’ will quickly become the accepted norm.”